State agency investigates Bethel facility -- Report details alleged abuse
By Antoinette Konz
Hattiesburg American, June 11, 2004

Some residents at the Bethel Girls Academy say they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse by the school's director and staff, material released by a state agency shows.

The state Department of Human Services released 40 pages of investigative reports late Wednesday that contain interviews with some of the 38 girls at the home. The girls were removed by state officials May 19 amid allegations that they had been subjected to abuse.

Herman Fountain Jr., the director of the facility, denied any allegations of abuse. No charges have been filed in connection with the case, and DHS spokesman Rick Whitlow said his agency hasn't provided parents with details on the investigation at Bethel.

The reports provided by DHS have names and ages of the girls who were interviewed whited out. The DHS records show that the girls were interviewed on May 19, the same day they were ordered removed from the facility by Forrest County Youth Court Judge Michael McPhail.

Among the allegations in the investigative reports:

One girl told investigators that students were made to "jump into the dirty lake - the sewage pond" and made to exercise "until you cannot breath (sic) or you vomit." The girl also said Fountain called the girls derogatory names when he got angry.

Another girl said Fountain sat on her head three times and that she was hit by Fountain "on the back of her leg with a mop handle."

As a form of punishment, the girl said she had to listen to preaching tapes from 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. for eight days "where two girls stood guard to make sure she stayed in the room."

Another girl claimed that some of the abuse was done by "leaders" - girls who had been at the academy longer and were in charge of newer girls. She stated that the "leaders beat (a girl) up and rolled her in the dirt and sprayed her with a hose."

Several girls told of a March 29 incident in which Fountain threw a table and chairs at them after about 15 girls had gone on strike to protest the way they were being treated.

A girl who said she was involved in the strike told DHS officials that the students involved had "to run in place, do jumping jacks, squats and run around outside the pond." She said she also witnessed another girl "having to carry two buckets of water from the pond up to a big black container beside the picnic table. After the black container was filled with pond water, the girl had to empty the filled black container."

The newspaper has filed a request under the state's Public Records Act seeking copies of DHS policies and procedures. The newspaper has also asked for license or certification information and details of any prior complaints against the facility.

Although DHS released investigative reports, it still has not complied with all of the Hattiesburg American's requests. The agency had until Thursday to respond to the request.

In letters not provided by DHS, a whistleblower wrote to the attorney general's office to complain of abuse at the facility.

In an April 27 letter to Jim Gilliland, director of investigations with the Mississippi Attorney General's office, the whistleblower wrote that "the time has come where I must report what I consider to be gross violations of abuse against the girls."

In another letter written May 5, the writer stated: "I appeal to you and the Attorney General to take immediate action in the removal of the girls that remain at Bethel Girl's Academy."

The writer cites state law that requires anyone with knowledge of abuse of a minor to report the incident to the authorities.

The whistleblower described the March 29 incident involving a protest strike by girls at the school when about 12 girls were sent to the facility's dining hall where they were confronted by Fountain.

The document states that Fountain was agitated, asked what the problem was and when a girl started to respond, he picked up a table and threw it at the girls.

The whistleblower wrote that Fountain said, "Shut up you freak show. Who told you to talk?"

The girls moved out of the way of the table, but several began to cry as a result, the writer notes. Fountain then threw two metal folding chairs into a concrete wall, according to the account. The writer states, "I was thankful that none of the girls were near when this happened."

Another person visiting Bethel on March 29 also complained to the state attorney general's office about the chair-throwing incident.

Fountain said Thursday he recalled the March 29 incident.

"The girls were protesting because I wasn't living there and they wanted me to live there," he said. "I pushed a table out of the way, threw a chair against the wall and kicked another chair against the wall. The chairs never hit the girls or anyone else."

Fountain said that he did call some of the girls "freak show," but it was not meant in a derogatory or bad way.

Carolyn Stewart, whose 16-year-old daughter was one of the 38 girls removed by DHS officials, said Thursday she questions the accuracy of DHS' investigative reports.

"My daughter has told me that while she was being interviewed by DHS, the social worker would twist her words around," said Stewart, of New Port Richey, Fla. "These people came into her home (Bethel) and twisted her words around. Now they are trying to use this twisted information to build a case."

Stewart said she wasn't even notified that her daughter was being questioned or removed until well after she had been removed from the home.

"I was shocked to find out from my daughter that the state officials were even allowed to question these girls without a third person or a parent being present," she said. "I think she needed an advocate with her."

Meanwhile, the attorney representing parents of three girls removed from Bethel home said that a date for a postponed hearing before McPhail has not been rescheduled.

Michael Reed had asked for a June 3 hearing before McPhail in an attempt to ask the judge to reconsider his order removing their children from the Bethel home.

Reed filed a continuance the morning of the June 3 hearing, stating he had received new information in the case. Reed has refused to say what the information he received was.

Originally published Friday, June 11, 2004

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